Bringing lived experience to patient care: doctors with disabilities and health issues have an important role in healthcare

Dr Ben Bravery. Image: AFR

30 November 2022

This Saturday 3 December 2022 is the International Day of People with a Disability. Lived experience, whether a disability or a health issue, brings a different perspective to patient care.

Every healthcare professional brings their own life experiences to patient care. This may be personal experience or that of a close family member. It is often these experiences that prompt individuals to study medicine and become doctors. In other situations, medical students or doctors may be challenged by an accident or illness during their journey in medicine. Support and a willingness to adapt enables many doctors with disabilities or chronic illness to continue their medical career and even thrive and excel in what they do. It may not be easy and a common theme is having someone in their life who provides encouragement and support or being given an opportunity to continue their career in medicine. This is often a medical colleague who expresses a belief in their ability, rather than seeing the barriers.

Dr Ben Bravery, in his autobiography “The Patient Doctor” writes about his bowel cancer diagnosis at 28 years of age and how this led him to study medicine and become a “patient-turned-doctor.” His quest now is to put the heart back into healthcare by ensuring patients and doctors alike are treated with care and compassion every day. In this book he describes sharing his experiences as a patient with fellow medical students and his tutors. He also describes how his own experiences have influenced the way he practices medicine, in particular his approach and attitude to patients.

Doctors with a visible disability, such as those using a wheelchair, report that patients are more open about their struggle as they feel that a doctor with a disability will be more compassionate due to their own life experiences. It seems that patients feel more at ease with a doctor they can relate to. This can be particularly important to patient care. Good rapport and honesty are key aspects of communication which informs healthcare decisions and approaches to treatment.

Doctors who have been patients or who have a disability also have a good understanding of how to navigate the complex systems in healthcare and how to access services which improve quality of life. This aspect of lived experience enables very practical advice based on personal experience. This “real world” information and advice, plus empathy and understanding can be invaluable to patients and their families.

While there are laws prohibiting discrimination, in healthcare we need an environment where employers view disability or chronic illness as an asset. We need workplaces which are adaptable and accommodating and who are willing to provide flexibility in rosters and roles. We also need technology and a creative approach to solve practical issues faced by individual healthcare professionals. A change in attitude to disability and illness with an inclusive approach will enhance healthcare by bringing the benefit of lived experience to patient care.

Kay Dunkley
AMA Victoria doctor wellbeing and mentoring


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